When cultural historians come to write the book on late-20th- and early-21st-century television comedy, the name of Harry Thompson should occupy several chapters. Thompson was the most influential comedy producer of his generation.
The briefest perusal of his CV confirms as much. The founder producer of Have I Got News For You, he went on to make such ground-breaking programmes as Newman and Baddiel in Pieces, Harry Enfield and Chums, They Think It's All Over, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, The 11 O'Clock Show, Da Ali G Show and Monkey Dust. In the process, he gave big breaks to such key comic figures as Paul Merton, Ian Hislop, Angus Deayton, Harry Enfield, Paul Whitehouse, Kathy Burke, Nick Hancock, Mark Lamarr, Sacha Baron Cohen and Ricky Gervais. Many of those performers are already seen as all-time greats of British comedy.
Thompson's influence has been reiterated by the long line of television executives who have been queuing to pay tribute to him since his death, aged 45, from lung cancer. Peter Fincham, the Controller of BBC1, describes him as "that rarity in television - the talented, single-minded, subversive maverick". Meanwhile, Roly Keating, the BBC2 Controller, calling him "a truly independent spirit and one of the funniest people I've ever known", comments on the "sheer creative energy" that kept him "active up to the very end".
An astonishingly hard-working, driven man, Thompson had been in and out of hospital over the past few months, but was apparently still putting the finishing touches to his last script - Respectable, a Five sitcom set in a brothel and co-authored with his long-time collaborator Shaun Pye - as late as last Friday. Next month he was to have received the Jury's Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Comedy at the British Comedy Awards.
But Thompson also possessed a hinterland unusual in the sometimes shallow world of comedy. He wrote acclaimed biographies of Hergé (Tintin: Hergé and his creation, 1991), Richard Ingrams (Richard Ingrams: lord of the gnomes, 1994) and Peter Cook (Peter Cook: a biography, 1997). His first novel, This Thing of Darkness, about Darwin, published this year, went on the long list for the Man Booker Prize. It was a very strong year - neither Salman Rushdie's nor Ian McEwan's new books made the short list - but Thompson's novel is said to have come close to a nomination.
Ian Hislop, one of the team captains on Have I Got News For You, is an old friend from Oxford University who played for many years in Thompson's famous amateur cricket team, the Captain Scott Invitation XI. He describes This Thing of Darkness as
actually completely brilliant. It's not just quite good - it's stunning. It utilises all Harry's gifts for travel writing and observation. As a single legacy, it would be pretty impressive, but look what else he accomplished as well. You look at his age and you see 45 and you can't believe how much he achieved.
In addition, Thompson was a skilled journalist who was nominated for the travel journalist of the year award in 1995. Jana Bennett, the BBC's Director of Television, sees his writing as "not a departure, but merely a continuation of his wide-ranging intelligence".
What were Thompson's greatest strengths as a comedy producer? In person, this tall, lithe man had a wonderfully wry, slow-burning wit, and that was reflected in his work. He had an innate understanding of what would make for funny television - something not all comedy producers grasp by any means. He was not swayed by fashion and would always stand by his own view of what was a good joke. When he collaborated with Thompson on Harry Enfield and Chums, Paul Whitehouse commented that,
on the show, he had the courage to change things, which is quite an achievement. He didn't back down . If he thought something was a pile of shit, he'd tell us. Then we'd attack him in the toilet, of course! He helped with the how and where you get to a punchline. I'd recommend him for anything - from Newsnight to The Magic Roundabout. He really is that good.
Thompson himself defined his role as being the ultimate arbiter on a comedy show:
As a producer, you decide what goes in the show and what doesn't. You stand or fall by that . . . So I find myself arguing over jokes a lot. You end up being a bit of a Liberal Democrat, trying to rein people into the centre.
But, more than anything, Thompson was responsible for introducing a whole new strain of subversive humour into the mainstream. He took the tradition of post-war British satire - which stretched back to Beyond the Fringe and That Was the Week That Was - into an entirely new arena. Satire had previously been perceived as something of a "niche" field of comedy, but Have I Got News For You brought it to a much broader audience. When it moved to BBC1 in the late 1990s, it was netting viewing figures in excess of eight million.
Like any good satirist, Thompson also manifested a healthy disrespect for the political class. In the teeth of fierce opposition from Hislop and Merton on Have I Got News For You, the producer placed a tub of lard beside Paul Merton in place of the then Labour MP Roy Hattersley, who reportedly kept cancelling at the last minute. It became one of the most celebrated episodes in the show's history.
The producer, who recently set up his own production company, Silver River, also possessed an extremely acute eye for talent. For instance, he was instrumental in creating the Ali G character, the parodic "street-cred" interviewer and head of the "Staines Massive" who has become a huge cult on both sides of the Atlantic with the clout to headline in his own movies and star in Madonna videos. While working with Ali G's alter ego, Sacha Baron Cohen, on C4's The 11 O'Clock Show, Thompson sat him down one day and told him to forget about the other characters he was working up in order to concentrate on a spoof "yoof" commentator. That afternoon, the immortal Ali G was born.
Ali G is a good example of the way in which Thompson was able to predict new movements in comedy. He had his finger on the TV pulse, but he was equally astute when it came to identifying social trends. Jana Bennett defines his sense of humour as combining
great wit with incredibly intelligent insights. His comedy always had something to say. He was a brilliant social commentator. Have I Got News For You has always told us more about current affairs that we'll ever know from reading the papers.
Also, in a chillingly accurate way, Monkey Dust prefigured the idea of local British lads turning into jihadists. When 7/7 happened, I immediately thought of Harry's prescience.
Throughout his career, Thompson, who started out at the BBC as a news trainee before shifting to radio comedy with programmes such as The News Quiz and The Mary Whitehouse Experience, also relished mischief-making. Stuart Murphy, the Controller of BBC3, recollects being taken aback when Thompson showed him the first rushes from Monkey Dust, his wickedly dark animated satire:
It was a clip of a very well-known DJ being mauled by dogs. My first reaction was, "Oh my God." Most producers would have sent something tamer, but Harry loved the thought of my sitting on the toilet for three weeks with worry!
I loved Monkey Dust, but often found myself watching it from between my fingers. Harry was obsessive, cheeky, naughty and relentless. But those are the very qualities that made him such a brilliant producer. From Have I Got News For You to Monkey Dust, he put the bite and the balls into British comedy.
He was certainly fearless in his approach to comedy - witness Monkey Dust's near-the-knuckle jokes about jihadists and paedophiles - but he could always justify it. Ever keen to test the boundaries of good taste, he once said to me:
You'll never see anything PC or right-on in my shows. I get accused quite a lot of straying into bad taste, but I think you can laugh at almost anything.
Hislop recalls that Thompson's ability to wind people up was evident back in their Oxford days (he went from Highgate School to Brasenose College, to read History), when Thompson edited the university paper, Cherwell:
For a whole term, Harry ran a series of brilliant pieces in Cherwell about an Australian water-skiing Blue called Gino Beria. At the end of term, Harry announced that Gino had died in a terrible accident in Worcester College lake. Of course, Harry had made the whole thing up. Gino Beria was an anagram of "aborigine", but no one had spotted that. For Harry, that was indicative of the mischief to come.
Roly Keating, who was arts editor of Cherwell when Thompson was editor, chips in that
he was an utterly un-institutional character. . . He was in awe of no one and would always push for that extra joke. That's what made him special.
There was "an unbroken thread of sheer wickedness" in his work.
Apart from comedy and his family, Thompson's other great love was cricket. He set up the amateur Captain Scott Invitation XI in 1979, and it is still going strong with 30-odd games a season. The team has toured all over the world, and down the years people such as Hislop, Hugh Grant, Iain Glen and your correspondent have all donned the whites for this team. Thompson recently finished a book about the club, Penguins Stopped Play, which will be published next April.
He adored the camaraderie of the team and was enjoying the club's annual dinner just 10 days ago. He was meticulous in keeping records about it. A self-confessed "classic anal retentive of the very worst sort", he compiled a mammoth Cricketers' Almanack in the style of Wisden, with reports from every single Captain Scott game. Thompson himself played in 640-odd consecutive games, a run that was only broken by his diagnosis with cancer this April.
Thompson inspired great affection in his friends and family, and married his long-term girlfriend, Lisa Whadcock, on the day he died.
Eleven years ago, Thompson told me that his ambition in life was
to accede to the status of John Lloyd [the celebrated producer of Not the Nine O'Clock News, Spitting Image and Blackadder], walking into the BBC 1 Controller's office and saying, "I've just sneezed. I'd like to make a programme on sneezing." And the Controller goes, "Sure."
Thompson attained those giddy heights. British comedy over the past 20 years would have been a far less funny place without him.
James RamptonReuse content